It’s difficult to comprehend the horror of London’s Grenfell Tower fire: the images of people screaming for help at their windows; their phone calls to loved ones as they waited to die; the accounts of children being thrown from windows – one only moments before her mother was engulfed by the fire; the trauma that survivors, families and the community will now endure.
The official death toll stands at 79, but this is still significantly fewer than the likely final count. Ground floor resident Abdul Suleman, who witnessed the disaster, said he counted faces in the windows of the upper floors, who he knows were unable to survive. He said, “I saw them with my eyes at the windows. It has to be more who died”.
As the full picture came to light in the days that followed the fire, another great horror emerged – the fact that fire was entirely predictable and preventable. Here was an atrocity that exposed the sheer violence of neoliberalism and austerity, and vicious indifference to the voices and lives of the poor.
We learned that residents had been told to “stay put” in their rooms because the block had been designed according to “rigorous fire safety standards”, but that in actual fact, the building had no fire sprinkler system, defunct fire extinguishers, no whole-building alarm system, faulty wiring, no fire safe doors and broken elevators.
We learned that the danger of housing block fires was documented in a report that successive housing ministers – one of them prime minister Theresa May’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell – had ignored.
We learned that residents organised as the Grenfell Tower Action Group had protested and pleaded with their landlord, the Kensington Chelsea Tenant Management Office, and the local council, to improve fire safety in the building. They had warned that something disastrous was otherwise bound to happen.
We learned that, instead, “improvements” done to the building included the installation of external aluminium and plastic cladding to make the tower look nicer for its wealthy neighbours. This cladding was flammable, non-compliant and chosen over a non-flammable material only $8,000 dearer.
We learned that three fire stations near Grenfell had recently closed due to funding cuts. That legislation introduced to make all homes fit for human habitation had been voted down by the Tory government, 72 of those parliamentarians being landlords. We learned that the Kensington and Chelsea borough in which this happened is one of the wealthiest in England, home to billionaires living only blocks away from some of the poorest – many from migrant and refugee backgrounds.
With all of that information coming to the surface, you would imagine that May’s government and the Kensington council would be desperate to prove people wrong in concluding that they were ultimately to blame for this disaster. Instead, quite incredibly, we saw the opposite: a refusal by May to come and meet with survivors; calculated underestimations of the death toll; a total lack of coordination of the relief effort.
They didn’t give a damn about the suffering that had been inflicted, and were busying themselves only with minimising any adverse political impact. Contrast their silence and inaction with the outrage they display for those lost to terrorist attacks, when there’s an opportunity for racist scapegoating and distraction.
What was striking about TV interviews with survivors and locals in the wake of the fire was not just the rage that people were expressing, but their absolute certainty about who to blame. Person after person gestured in the direction of the houses of the rich. It was obvious to all: those killed in Grenfell Tower died because they were poor; because they were dispensable to a ruling class single-mindedly focused on profit, who live only blocks away. To the media one resident said, “You come when people die! You should have come here before”.
It was only because of this angry response of community members and their supporters, which included a number of protests, one quite militant that occupied the local council offices, that there was finally some response from government. Pressure on local government built up to the point that it announced it would use 68 social housing flats in the luxury Kensington Row development to rehouse survivors.
This won’t house the many subtenants and flat owners made homeless by the fire and isn’t an immediate or adequate answer, but it’s a win that came out of the protests. The announcement as well by police that they’d consider manslaughter charges over the fire came from that immense community response. There might otherwise have been no criminal investigation of those responsible.
In the relief effort too, ordinary people made and distributed donations, provided places to sleep and volunteered their time. The response of the rich, on the other hand, was epitomised by a Kensington Row apartment owner, who told radio listeners she would be “resentful” and “would move” if those who lost their homes in the fire were rehoused in her complex – because she has worked “very hard” to afford her luxury property and she “doesn’t get anything for free”. That’s the sentiment at the other end of the class spectrum.
It gets you thinking about how many conservative politicians, property investors and rich scum in the area were waiting and hoping that something like this (on a smaller, less deadly scale perhaps) would happen to justify pulling down the tower and relocating its residents out of sight. Why else would they have ignored the signs that the building was a death trap for so long?
But both the extent of the disaster and the furious response from the community have had the opposite effect: they’ve brought the issues of substandard housing and class inequality to the fore of political debate in Britain. These questions demand answers that neoliberalism can’t provide, because the drive to profit of the capitalist system is at the core of all of this.
Public housing in Australia
In Australia, though there might not have been a disaster on the scale of Grenfell, the same dynamics are at play. Successive Liberal and Labor governments have embraced the view that the building and managing of public housing should no longer be a role of the state and that the assets tied up in it – our assets – would be better cashed in. Year after year, the stock has been sold or neglected with the ultimate aim of granting all power to the private market.
There are still around 127,000 public tenants in Victoria. But public housing is now increasingly oriented to offering a temporary fall-back from the private market, not homes that tenants can expect to raise a family in and treat as their own as long as they’re alive.
This is a marked shift from even 15 years ago, when governments still considered public housing to be an essential part of the mix. Since then, there’s been a constant effort to grind down or evict tenants living in sought-after areas so that the land can be sold to developers: Millers Point in Sydney is the prime example. There, tenants, mostly elderly, have waged an awesome fight to stay in houses that they have lived in for many decades.
In Melbourne, suburbs such as Prahran, Carlton and Northcote – areas deemed too nice for the poor – have been or will be subject to private redevelopment with Labor’s “social mix” approach. This consists of prime public land being sold to developers on the condition that they’ll build two-thirds private and one-third public (or community) housing.
Melbourne University recently published a report by Kate Shaw and Abdullahi Jama, which detailed how the Carlton development, rather than encouraging social mixing of classes, has very carefully maintained segregated living. There are separate entrances for private and public residents, some even facing different streets. The private residents of one apartment building also have exclusive access to a garden courtyard that public residents can only look at from their balconies.
In other areas, such as West Heidelberg, there’s no “social mix” approach because the whole suburb is poor people. The orientation there is to “renew” the housing, essentially by cannibalising old homes to make way for new ones. There’s little to no expansion of the stock – the project is largely funded by the sale of old or vacant properties. And though the project moves at a snail’s pace, it’s constantly used to justify the disrepair of the current homes – they won’t spend any money on repairs because the houses are to be torn down at some indefinite time in the future.
We see mould problems, where tenants have letter upon letter from their doctor saying the mould in their property is dangerous and almost certainly the cause of illnesses such as eczema, asthma and pneumonia. Resident advocates might even have expert reports commissioned to show that mould levels are dangerous, but they are met with indifference from the Department of Health and Human Services.
It is not uncommon for a family of seven people to be living in a two-bedroom house. I have helped a client who sleeps with her husband in one room while her five children aged between two and 15 sleep in the other. But it’s still the case that rent is capped at 25 percent of a pension income and there’s some security of tenure. The alternatives – the private rental market or homelessness – are much worse for people on low incomes.
It’s in this context that Victorian housing minister Martin Foley says straight faced, “The state is a terrible housing manager”. This systematic neglect, rather than prompting a drastic and immediate increase in funding, is used to argue for the transfer of stock to the private sector. Health care, transport, education, aged care, disability services – governments run them all into the ground and then shrug and say they would be better off in private hands.
This has happened with public housing largely without question because it’s done under the cover of transferring stock to specialist community housing providers. Late last year, the state government transferred the titles of more than $500 million worth of public housing stock to one such organisation, Aboriginal Housing Victoria, dressing the move up as some kind of self-determination for Aboriginal people.
But these organisations are in every way worse landlords for tenants than the Department of Health and Human Services. Though they also charge a capped portion of a tenant’s pension income as rent, but they have far fewer policies around the protection of tenants’ rights, give less security of tenure and operate much more in the manner of unaccountable private real estate agents.
What about this private market that our governments are so dead set on? How well is it working out for everyone? The property boom – obviously a gold mine for a small few – has led to home ownership rates over the last 30 years declining more than 30 percent for those aged between 25 and 34, almost 20 percent for the 35-44-year-olds and more than 10 percent for 45-54-year-olds. Renting in the private market has become the only option for many people, even though it too is expensive.
A household is considered to be in housing stress if it spends more than 30 percent of its income on rent or mortgage payments. Between 2008 and 2014 the proportion of low income households experiencing housing stress rose from 35 percent to 42 percent.
The ideal of home ownership has long been encouraged as a means by which to tie the mass of the population to the market. But the property boom, spurred on by government policy, has shifted this system into speculative overdrive. A layer of people who already have somewhere to live, but who want somewhere to store their assets, is reaping most of the benefits. They’re assisted by property-related tax concessions, such as negative gearing, which cost the federal budget billions of dollars every year. More than half of these tax breaks go to investors in the top 10 percent income bracket. This not only fuels house price increases, but also means funding for essential services is put under pressure.
What was once an ideal broadly attainable for those on an average wage is now for many a pipedream. This is Australian capitalism performing at its best. The median house price in Sydney is $1 million, and Melbourne closely follows. And many of those “lucky” home owners who can access the market are mortgaged to the hilt and find themselves in increasing mortgage stress.
The crisis of housing affordability has in turn put an immense pressure on the private rental market, which is prohibitively expensive, competitive and fraught with issues that tenants are powerless to challenge. For those who live in rental properties, your home, how long you live there, whether repairs are undertaken or not, are all subject to what will be profitable for the investor. Housing is a commodity. The quality of your home, in what area it is and for how long you can live there – all depend on what you can pay for that commodity.
The bipartisan policy approach to homelessness is again one of neoliberal small government – they don’t build crisis accommodation; they provide funding to non-government organisations to support people to source housing on the private market. What this often looks like is homelessness services funding eligible clients one or two nights in a cheap, often bedbug-ridden private motel.
At such a service in Sunshine, where I used to work, people were required to queue on any given morning to access this support. Every day when staff arrived there was the most depressing sight of a queue of at least 20 people, sometimes twice that many, lining up with their bags and their kids, trying just to get somewhere to stay for the next night.
Apart from the indignity, and the fact that it means people’s days are consumed with accessing services, it’s also extremely costly. In many ways, it is outrageous to couch the issue in economic terms – how do you put a price on a person’s life being wasted? But the monetary cost shows the absurdity of it: around $25,000 is spent per person per year (or $104 million annually in Victoria alone) as costed by SGS Economics and Planning. That’s $480 per week, which would cover the rent for a two-bedroom house.
Meanwhile, places to live, as long as they’re assets in the hands of investors, sit empty. This is the obscene result of the commodification of housing. British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was right to call for empty homes near Grenfell to be requisitioned for those left homeless – it’s common sense. Yet the establishment started howling that he’s a crazy Marxist because the suggestion brought their whole system of property and laws that protect property into question. And once you question it, it’s totally logical to come to a radical conclusion. Why do we have to recognise the legitimacy of this fictional thing called the market? These are straightforward problems that are very simple to solve when we consider them outside of the parameters of capitalism.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, 149 other towers in Britain – all of those checked so far – have failed fire safety tests. What happens to resolve this issue and to provide for the Grenfell survivors remains to be seen. So far, the government has declined to provide the funding needed to immediately bring all public housing up to adequate safety standards. But the Tories are on the back foot, and this could prove to be a new political battleground if the fierce response from ordinary people continues.
Corbyn has promised to build 100,000 new public homes a year. That’s a welcome start. But given the resources at society’s disposal today, we could go much further. If Grenfell can serve as a catalyst for a movement that starts finally to push back against the agenda of the ruling class – a movement that insists that the poor will not be forced out of inner city areas, that they deserve safe homes to protect them and that, more broadly, we need a society based on human need, not profit – then there might be at least some justice done for those murdered by the system.
This is encapsulated really beautifully in this small part of a poem about Grenfell Tower by Ben Okri, which is worth reading in full if you can find it. He writes:
Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation
From its secret shame. And here it is every name
Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room,
Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed.
They did not die when they died; their deaths happened long
Before. It happened in the minds of people who never saw
Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened
In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.
Those who are living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower
See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.